Boneshaker takes place in an alternate America where the Civil War never ended, the western states are still territories, and zeppelins rule the skies — for no apparent reason other than their popularity in the steampunk genre. Several decades ago, the failure of a massive drilling machine in Seattle made poisonous gas leak out of the ground, turning the entire population into zombies. In the novel’s present day, the son of the drilling machine’s inventor, stung by his family’s poor reputation, decides to break into the city (which has understandably been sealed off) in an attempt to set the record straight.
If that seems a little excessive to you — I mean, I’d rather be misunderstood than eaten by zombies — you’ve hit upon Boneshaker‘s first problem, which is its contrived plot. The heavy hand of the author is apparent in almost every crucial turning point, from the son’s irrational desire to enter a city filled with ravenous zombies, to the natural disaster that traps him there, to the sudden appearance of a Darth Vader-like father figure, complete with breathing mask. At no point does the plot feel like it arises organically from the decisions of the characters in natural situations.
The plot is not the only contrived part of Boneshaker. The book is overstuffed with clichés. The peripheral characters all fit into unsurprising, made-for-TV archetypes: the gruff sky captain, the inscrutable Chinese assistant, the brassy female bar owner. And at times the conventions of steampunk seem to get in the way of the book’s actual setting; as I noted earlier, it really makes no sense that zeppelins play such a huge role in this world.
Boneshaker is apparently the first in a constellation of novels sharing this setting. Since the setting is the best part of the book I’m glad Priest has gotten the chance to explore it further. But I’ll be sitting the rest of the series out.